Known by her first name, this royal family makes things simple for her. Typographers and poets, not on a first-name basis with the scientist, have a more complex relationship to reality. The young hero of “Lost Illusions” is a typist named Lucien Chardon (Benjamin Voysen). He is also a poet who seeks to be known as Lucien de Rombre. This different title doesn’t just represent a different profession. It would also indicate the attainment of a different class and status, or at least it would be in Paris, around 1840.
“Lost Illusions” arrives with impressive credentials. It’s based on Honoré de Balzac, a novel that most great authors don’t fancy. “No young man, free and with more than 1,000 francs, is really sad to leave his family,” says the narrator in an audio commentary as 20-year-old Lucien prepares to leave his provincial home. This is a very Balzac note.
The 1,000 francs come from the beautiful and unhappy married Baroness de Bargton (Cecile de France). The baroness loves poetry and loves Lucien. She attempts to house him with aristocratic patrons as soon as he arrives in Paris. Soon, Lucien found a different kind of favoritism. Lousteau (Vincent Lacoste), a very saucy and charming journalist, takes Lucien under his wing. Among those he has signed is Coralie (Salome DeWiles), the earthy, spicy actress who aspires to Racine. Like Lucien, Choral also strives for a higher status, albeit more justified.
“Lost Illusions” won seven Césars, a French Oscar, including Best Picture. It has the production values one would expect with this distance. The movie is consistently handsome. And even when we’re in the realm of Lousteau, bohemian Coralie, and other infamous types, it all seems a little lavish. “Lost Illusions” has a great cast, but make no mistake: The biggest star is the decor. Being Balzac Balzac, you can safely assume how things will turn out. Seeing how Lucien’s furniture and clothes keep track of their condition makes it easy to follow the plot.
Two creative casting pieces are additional credentials. Director Xavier Dolan (Mommy, 2014) plays the aristocratic novelist Nathan who befriends Lucien. Nathan offers the closest thing in the story to a moral compass. There is nothing moral about Dauriat, a cheerful mercenary publisher. “Literature feeds illusions,” Lucien lectures. “I believe in pineapple. . . . I hope pineapple will save us from hair.” It’s an unforgettable streak, and Dauriat’s only memorable player is Gerard Depardieu.
The most interesting element of the film’s pedigree requires a little knowledge of the film’s history to appreciate. “Lost Illusions” shares Paris, a period, and an environment with “Children of Heaven” (1945). This post shows the bravery, or recklessness, of Xavier Giannoli (“Marguerite,” 2015), who directed “Lost Illusions” and was involved in the adaptation. Seventy-seven years is a long time, but Children of Heaven remains one of the greatest films ever made. (You can stream it via Amazon Prime or the Criterion Channel. Watch it with someone you love.) Giannoli doesn’t hold back from the comparison. In fact, it draws attention to it. We have not once but twice glimpsed a mime who could be mistaken for the character of Jean-Louis Barrault in The Children.
A good movie “Lost Illusions” aspires to be a great movie, but that ambition helps prevent it from being a better movie. It’s full of vibrancy and a very leisurely moth: a respectable, self-aware movie in which the least dignified characters are the most compelling. You suspect Balzac would have mocked him a little, once he made sure the check for rights was cleared.
Directed by Xavier Giannulli. Written by Giannulli, Jacques Vichy, Yves Strafrieds; Based on the novel Honoré de Balzac. Starring Benjamin Foisin, Cecile de France, Vincent Lacoste, Xavier Dolan, Salome Deuels, Gerard Depardieu. In Kendall Square, Dedham Community. unclassified. In French with translation.
Mark Feeney can be reached at [email protected]